Wednesday evening, 2.5 years after deciding to come to Gaza as a human rights researcher, I finally managed to reach the small sealed off coastal strip. When saying I got into Gaza from Egypt many people here widen their eyes in surprise; “You came through Rafah crossing? How?” Well, I guess in my case it took a helpful woman working at the Egyptian embassy in the Hague (‘I hope you reach Gaza’), Egyptian border officials who were in a good mood that day, and a solid dosis of luck.
For most Palestinians Rafah crossing still equals waiting, waiting, waiting, refusals and/or a dead end street. They find themselves cut off from relatives, friends, medical treatment, educational opportunities and other destinations.
The face of occupation
Having lived in Nablus (West Bank) for 14 months I subconsciously started comparing the characteristics of occupation there with the type of occupation existing here in the Gaza Strip.
In the West Bank the occupation has a face that is fully visible; it’s materialized in the form of soldiers, settlers*, and military infrastructure. You can follow it with your eyes, touch it, shout at it, aim demonstrations at it. Settlements sit on every other hilltop, soldiers stop cars at checkpoints, military jeeps drive through villages and between cities, a barrier cuts through villages’ agricultural lands, and night raids are common.
Here in the Gaza Strip the occupation can be sensed in every aspect of life; air strikes, shelling, military firing zones (imposed on Gaza’s agricultural land and within its territorial waters), lack of basic facilities and a destroyed economy. But it has no face to look at. The occupation of Gaza is reduced to technical procedures. Somewhere in watch towers, fighter jets, and computer rooms anonymous fingers press mechanic buttons that send electric signals to the weapons that eventually end up injuring, maiming and killing the people living in this big cage. Being locked in, locked up, without interaction with your prison guards, that’s life for 1.6 million people here. And this overcrowded space is being compressed continuously; marine ships shrink the waters of Gaza fishermen while snipers (from watch towers) and bulldozers have turned the agricultural lands into flattened death zones.
The father of a family I spent Iftar with (the meal that breaks the Ramadan fasting when the sun sets) says that the occupation is like a ghost to him. ‘You can’t see the one who attacks you and you don’t know when he will attack.’ And the ghost is always there, in a very creepy way. Gaza has been bombed several times since I arrived on Wednesday. These airstrikes and shellings came after rockets were fired into Israel by small armed groups.
Anoter man gave his – brief but clear – description of what he thought the Gaza Strip resembles: “an animal farm, just like in the book”.
Knowing the statistics of the destroyed Gaza economy, unemployment rate (45.2%) and aid dependency (over 75%) before I came here, I wondered: will the poverty be visible to me in the Gaza Strip? Having gotten to know the Palestinian culture throughout the Middle East one thing became very clear to me: it is a culture in which dignity, pride and the golden rule of “giving and sharing” are cherised and upheld even under the most difficult circumstances. That is why I felt surprise and sadness when women and men begged me for some coins in the street. Besides the scarcity of jobs and money there is a great lack of electricity, medicine, medical equipment, and construction material. Not to mention clean drinking water: the liquid substance that comes out of the taps here looks like water but sure smells of something else…
Voices from Gaza
More than anything I hope this blog can amplify the voices of the people here so they can tell you their stories. It would be a much needed addition to the oversimplified, dehumanized ‘information’ mainstream media feeds us. One of the voices I wish many of you could hear (read) is the one of Mohammed Suliman, a very talented and modest student who gives you a look into his life through his blog.
During workshops the children first discussed the meaning of human rights and then summarized their thoughts in images. I went to the exhibition of the paintings in Gaza city. No doubt these kids were talented and creative. But besides that I was struck by how the kids had often given characters in happy paintings blond hair while the less joyful depictions were mostly personified by black haired characters. I guess that says a lot about the divide these children experience between the ‘fortunate’ and the ‘unfortunate’.